Whatever happens in football, we can be reasonably certain that the mutual antipathy between City and the FA Cup will remain.
Look at our “run” this season. Outplayed at home by a Third Division side. Outplayed again by them again on a Tuesday night in London. And now beaten at home by Barnsley. It’s difficult to imagine a more inglorious sequence than that. We’re now out of the Cup after an utterly wretched second half showing ensured defeat against one of our own division’s lesser lights – and that is precisely what we deserve.
Not that we can easily blame it on playing the reserves. Steve Bruce’s options have been trimmed a little in recent days for a variety of reasons, but the XI he sent out looked strong: Jakupović; Chester, Bruce, McShane; Rosenior, Olofinjana, Quinn, Meyler, Brady; Koren; Proschwitz.
Youngster Joe Cracknell was the substitute goalkeeper, and was joined by Faye, Hobbs, Dawson, Cairney, Stewart and Simpson. For Barnsley, ex-Tiger Scott Wiseman lined up at right-back.
Barnsley had brought a surprisingly respectable support, numbering perhaps 1,300, though in keeping with modern Cup occasions they were as quiet as the home support in an overall crowd of slightly under ten thousand. Indeed, the only sign of life anywhere in the stands was in the north-west corner, where fifty or so of the Tigers’ more vocal advocates had stationed themselves, and looked on in great unhappiness as the jobsworth stewards pointlessly moved the marvellous Ghetto of Excellence flag. Why? The police have quickly denied responsibility for this mind-bogglingly petty act, so it’s the dismal traffic warden wannabes in fluorescent jackets to blame for such weapons grade fuckwittery.
Anyway – on the pitch, things weren’t looking too bad. Nick Proschwitz in particular appeared to have had three Shredded Wheat for breakfast, looking like a man possessed up front. The touch was there, the physical presence was applied and he looked like giving the Barnsley defenders a long afternoon. In fact, he looked like a £2.5m striker.
Not that City were up against much. Barnsley were playing 3-5-2, but that seemed to gravely discomfit them. At least five times in the first half they offered a zig-zagging defensive line to the Tigers, allowing numerous raids on the flanks to be unencumbered by offside offences. Meyler in particular profited on the City right, though his crossing was of a decidedly sub-Elmohamady standard.
The first chance came when a Proschwitz turn and shot saw his left-footed effort scuffed slightly wide. Minutes later the drawbacks of a 3-5-1-1 formation were highlighted when a gorgeous move on the left involving Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn saw only Proschwitz awaiting the eventual cross – it was cleared.
McShane fired in a shot from 35 yards (seriously) which was a mixture of complete lunacy and splendid entertainment. His recent elevation to cult hero means it’s indulged, though you suspect there are more reliable routes to goal.
With 20 minutes played it was all City, and a breakthrough felt as though it may be a matter of time. A vicious free-kick from the right by Robbie Brady saw a clutch of City players burst towards it – Olofinjana met it, but directed it narrowly wide.
Robbie Brady picked up yet another caution for a silly lunge on Scott Wiseman, a straightforward decision for referee Mr Stroud. Trickier was one a few minutes later when Stephen Quinn was felled on the right hand side of the area chasing a through ball. There was an attendant linesman, at whom the East Stand offered some rather partial advice to. He froze, the referee hesitated, panicked…then gave a corner. Was it a penalty? Maybe. Probably. There was about enough uncertainty to make not awarding it far from a disgrace, however.
It certainly lent a black comedy to proceedings in one respect – Barnsley fans. Distinguishing between a rocket scientist and a supporter of Barnsley FC has never been difficult, but it halted the chant of “we only get shit refs” that’d preceded it. Is that chant the ultimate indication of small-time bitterness coupled with woeful ignorance? If so, it’s encouraged by Barnsley’s own website, a long-time proponent of paranoid refs-all-hate-us bollocks. It’s stupid. Stop it.
Things were slowing down on the pitch. City looked visibly annoyed at having not taken the lead, while once more lesser opposition were buoyed at having kept the Tigers out and they began to work their way into the game. A Koren free-kick from about 25 yards was chipped neatly over the wall, though without enough pace to really worry Luke Steele, who had plenty of time to move across his goal and catch the ball. With half-time approaching, a hugely optimistic shot by Etuhu seemed to swerve away from Jakupović and ended up beating the keeper, clipping the crossbar on the way over.
There was still time for another penalty appeal as Quinn was again involved in a tussle in the area. This wasn’t quite as convincing as the first, though (***cliché alert***) we’ve seen them given. Shit refs, remember.
It wasn’t, and that took us through the break. The game was goalless, but City had comfortably dominated both possession and chances, and there was general optimism that a tiring Barnsley would eventually be overcome.
Instead, we got a strong contender for Worst Forty Five Minutes Of The Season.
Things began to look ominous when the expected flurry of activity at the beginning of the half failed to materialise. Instead, Barnsley upped their game impressively, harrying City more effectively and looking to advance with far greater ambition. They were aided in this by Marlon Harewood, to whom the ball stuck all afternoon and whose muscular presence was the launchpad for increasingly frequent Barnsley raids.
The first fifteen minutes of the half were almost completely devoid of chances, save for a Harewood snapshot in the early stages and a free-kick from 25 yards from Brady that sailed well over.
This uninspiring fare prompted Steve Bruce to make a change, and he withdrew Olofinjana for Jay Simpson. That saw Koren drop back and the Tigers play a more orthodox 3-5-2. Barnsley replied by taking off Scott Wiseman for John Stones. Moments later City had the best chance of the half to date when the ball ricocheted to Robert Koren, about fifteen yards out on the right hand edge of the area. Who else would you want the ball to fall to? Yet his shot was a horribly wild swipe, and the ball screwed wide.
What IS up with Robert Koren, incidentally? His form has dipped badly in recent weeks, and a player who sometimes seems to float through games is now floating above them. It’s probably not a coincidence that his quiet period has seen City’s results dip so alarmingly.
A Barnsley attack on the right hand side was quelled at the last moment by a crunching challenge by Alex Bruce, who flew into ball, man and innocent bystanders with such force that he ended up prone on the turf, just off the pitch. It took a minute or so, but he eventually limped back on.
It’d have been better if he hadn’t. Moments later a break on the Barnsley right carved the Tigers open, and a redshirt bored down on Jakupović. The City keeper forced him wide, the ball was dragged back across goal, shot, blocked, shot, saved, shot, saved…then shot in. Any blame to Jakupović? No. His defence’s participation in this farcical episode was less than stellar. Bruce was incapable of moving properly, while some of his teammates simply opted not to. This was defending an under 9 girls’ team would have been disappointed with.
Bruce hobbled off for Cameron Stewart as the Barnsley supporters revelled in their lead. There were twenty minutes left, but if we’re being honest they never looked like being enough. The crowd wasn’t even animated enough to offer scorn, and the minutes ticked sullenly by, the only solitary saving grace being that a replay at least looked improbable.
There were two chances to inflict that upon us, however. A cross from the left by Stephen Quinn was met at the near post by Proschwitz, whose cute flick was well-directed but lacked the pace to beat Steele. Cameron Stewart did his Cameron Stewarty thing of combining lots of stepovers with an exhilarating burst of pace before whacking a cross into the stands, then finally Brady had an injury time chance to level with a free-kick that, again, Koren yielded to him. It clipped the top of the wall and went to safety – and City fell out of the FA Cup.
What to say? To Barnsley first, well played. Their second half showing was much improved, and they looked far more organised than earlier in the day. Having spent most of the first half chasing shadows, they were reinvigorated in the second period and it’d be churlish to suggest we were the victims of an undeserved defeat.
City though…oh dear. There was absolutely no inkling at half-time that such a rotten showing was imminent. No explanation suggests itself – but it’s not the first time recently a lesser side has played City, survived an early onslaught (aided by toothlessness up front) and eventually prevailed. That can happen from time to time, but it’s happening quite a bit too much at the moment. A sizeable improvement is needed if City are to emerge from this slump in form. It’s too late for the Cup, which has proven to be its customary source of disappointment. But there’s everything to play for the in League, and it’d be a huge shame if the great work earlier in the season was thrown away now.